Houston Texas floodsEach year, millions of people around the globe experience the trauma and devastation of a natural disaster. Since 2000, the five deadliest hurricanes in the U.S. have inflicted $209 billion in damages, destroying more than a million homes and killing 2,059 people.1

It is estimated that Hurricane Harvey, which devastated 50 counties in and around Houston, Texas, will surpass $190 billion in recovery costs. Over 30,000 people were displaced or lost their homes entirely.1, 2

What happens to the mental health of those who live through natural disasters — the survivors — after the waters recede and they go back to what is left of their homes?

How Do Natural Disasters Impact People Mentally?

It’s completely human to experience anxiety, fear, sadness and even shock when everything you’ve worked for — your home, all your possessions, your sense of security and belonging — is ripped away. When you’ve been forced to evacuate and return to try to rebuild from what remains, it is perfectly normal to experience a wide range of overwhelming emotions.

Short Term Effects

So, what are the most common short-term mental challenges facing victims of hurricanes and

other natural disasters? Dr. Melissa Allen, medical director of the UTHealth/Harris County Psychiatric Center who has worked directly with Harvey survivors, says it is common for victims to experience intense fear, anxiety, sadness, a sense of loss or depression, as well as atypical thought and behavior patterns, feel isolated and have difficulty sleeping.3 How long these emotions continue is often indicative of a person’s mental health and resilience before the devastation occurred.

For survivors who have a history of depression, bipolar or other mental health issues, the trauma of a natural disaster may exacerbate their symptoms. They may not have access to the medications they need to control their symptoms, increasing the traumatic reality of life after a natural disaster.

Especially vulnerable to emotional struggles in the wake of natural disaster, children express their anxiety in different ways. Overwhelming fear, social withdrawal, aggression or other behavioral issues may surface during and after the event. “In children, the loss of their normal routine and their sense of safety is really disruptive, and it can be a very confusing time,” Dr. Allen continues, “so it’s important to re-establish a sense of normalcy as soon as possible, and to talk with a child … see what it is they need, what they feel like happened, and just be there to reassure that they are in a safe place now.”3

Whether struggling with addiction or in pursuit of recovery, survivors of natural disasters face a greater risk of relapse. Coping with the loss of homes, jobs, pets and any sense of normalcy may leave them feeling physically exhausted, emotionally drained and hopeless. The emotional crutch or escape substance abuse provides may be particularly difficult to resist. One study of Hurricane Katrina survivors reported that one-third of those polled increased their usage of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana after the hurricane struck.4

Another study reported a dramatic increase in domestic violence among women in Mississippi who were displaced by Katrina. Researchers suggest that some victims, feeling a loss of control in the wake of disaster, try to assert control in their personal relationships through abusive behaviors.4

Long-Term Effects

As recovery efforts get underway — as rebuilding begins — individuals and communities often show incredible resilience and determination. But it is common for survivors to experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), even months beyond the initial event.

Research conducted after Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana in 2005 documented the link between the natural disaster and mental health. The Resilience in Survivors of Katrina (RISK) Project determined that nearly half of the 392 low-income parents they studied reported symptoms consistent with PTSD a year after the storm.3

PTSD manifests in the following ways:

  • Reliving the event via nightmares, flashbacks or triggers
  • Avoiding situations that remind you of the event
  • Negative changes in beliefs or feelings: avoiding relationships, not talking about the event, distrust of others
  • Feeling keyed up (hyperarousal): trouble sleeping, focusing, startled by loud noises5

Other long-term effects on mental health are more difficult to pinpoint and often vary by demographic, access to mental health resources and other physical health issues.

How Can You Support Victims of Natural Disasters?

Whether victims of natural disasters bounce back from the emotional trauma of the devastation almost always comes down to the individuals and the emotional support they receive.

In fact, one New Zealand study makes the connection all too clear. Dr. Susan Krause Whitbourne writes in Psychology Today, “Predicting who will be most depressed after a disaster [is] a matter of knowing how emotionally distraught the individual is during the event and in its immediate aftermath. People differ in their fear response to danger and threat; you may not be able to intervene during the disaster itself, but you will be of most help if you’re able to help alleviate those distressing emotions. At that basic level, your emotional support can help that individual cope with the challenges yet to come.”6

Your emotional support begins with your presence, in doing what you can to alleviate stress. For starters, as flood survivor Matt Williams says, if possible, show up and help. “Flood victims often experience what I liken to shell-shock meets heartbreak meets chaos,” Williams says. “Toss in moments of exhaustion, terror and rage and you’ve got a pretty fair description of what’s in store. … When people wrestle with trauma like this, one of the last things they will ask for is help. But it’s what they need most.”

In the weeks and months after natural disaster strikes, he says, anything you can do to provide a few moments of peace will be helpful. “Every thoughtful thing you can do to help someone recover from a flood is probably one less thing they’ll have to manage alongside their overwhelming grief.”7

There are things you can bring to help with the physical recovery of their lives and possessions: cleaners, supplies, step ladders, bedding, paper plates … the list is endless. And there is even more you can do. You can cut out sheetrock, remove destroyed items, pack and label belongings, stage items for storage. You can share your car, your garage space, your food, bathrooms and laundry. “After a flood,” Williams says, “there’s so much to do, just guess and you’ll probably be doing something really helpful.” 7

If it’s not possible to help in person, donate to organizations at the forefront of helping victims recover — both physically and emotionally. Use social media to connect victims who are displaced to resources and services available to help them. And never hesitate to pick up the phone and reach out to anyone you know who has experienced this kind of devastation. Your thoughtfulness and willingness to help in the recovery process reminds them they are not alone and that hope is not lost.

1These Are Some of the Most Disastrous U.S. Hurricanes Since 2000. Could Harvey Top Them?” Associated Press via The Denver Post, August 26, 2017.

2 Gomez, Luis. “Hurricane Harvey: 50 counties flooded, 30,000 people in shelters, 56,000 911 calls in just 15 hours.” San Diego Union Tribune, September 28, 2017.

3 Subberwal, Kaeli. “From the Mental Health Wreckage of Katrina, Lessons to Help Harvey’s Victims.” The Huffington Post, September 1, 2017.

4 Houston, J. Brian. “The mental health impact of major disasters like Harvey and Irma.” The Conversation, September 11, 2017.

5Symptoms of PTSD.” U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. N.d. Accessed 29 September 2017.

6 Whitbourne, Susan Krause. “What Does It Take to Survive Emotionally After a Disaster.” Psychology Today, September 12, 2017.

7 Williams, Matt. “How To Help the FloodedThe Huffington Post, September 6, 2017.